Expect the Unexpected for Iran’s Presidential Election

by Kevan Harris

Sociologists sometimes get lucky. In June 2009 I arrived in Tehran for a routine research trip. Over the next several months I witnessed the largest political demonstrations in Iran since 1979. Arising from protests against the results of the June presidential election, which were perceived by many Iranians as fraudulent, these marches and rallies quickly became known as the “Green movement.”

Social movements serve as a kind of natural laboratory for sociologists. We spend most of our time trying to explain why things don’t change; we study inequality, poverty, conflict, and discrimination. A social movement, however, is all about change — in demands, ideas, actions, and relationships between people. Living through one makes you feel like history is speeding up. Standing in the middle of it all makes you feel like your side will win.  But not all, or even most, social movements win. Yet, even if the demands are not met and the momentum dissipates, social movements tend to have effects that extend beyond their brief existence. This was certainly the case for the 2009 Green movement; it continues to impact events in Iran today.

In a journal article I wrote for Mobilization, I describe and explain some of the social and political dynamics that led to the Green movement’s rise and fall. Here I want to link my observations to Iran’s 2013 presidential election through the following three points.

1. Pre-election mobilization can lead to unpredictable outcomes

No one anticipated that Iran’s 2009 presidential election, regardless of its winner, would shake up the political scene. The stakes seemed pretty low, just as they do today. Mir-Hossein Mousavi was barely remembered from the 1980s, when he was a skinny prime minister overseeing an economy besieged by the Iran-Iraq war. Yet the few weeks leading up to the election witnessed a massive upsurge in emotional energy from all sides of the political spectrum. Many people made up their minds to vote for a particular candidate in the final few days. Rallies and street parties, which involved more than a bit of fun, pulled in curious onlookers and politicized them.

This escalation in emotional energy underpinned the surge in post-election protest. If you think emotion isn’t important for a social movement, then you’ve probably never been involved in one. Hope turned into anger among those who believed that Mousavi had won the election. But Mousavi’s shift from a mild-mannered retiree to a Gandhi-styled hero didn’t occur simply because he suddenly discovered an inner reserve of charisma. The pre-election mobilizations refashioned Mousavi’s tone on important social issues, and the post-election protests turned him into a symbol for stark political change. Elections matter in the Islamic Republic not because the best candidates are on the ballot — people are used to holding their nose and voting — but because they can sometimes reshape Iran’s social environment.

2. The internet does not equal civil society

The Green movement had little to do with civil society. This term is often used as a substitute for “the people,” but civil organizations such as trade unions, merchant guilds or sports clubs do not amount to a large blob of people that act in tandem outside of pre-existing political interests and networks. Post-election protests in 2009 were organized quite spontaneously and mostly outside of existing Iranian civil organizations.

The internet often confused — as much as it facilitated — events as website rumors about protest locations divided up momentum and online images of violence convinced many that going out was simply unsafe. The organizations that could have corralled and directed the protest upsurge were also the ones that were directly targeted in the first few days after the ballot by the Iranian government, including Mousavi’s electoral network of volunteers and strategists. Yet Mousavi’s network resembled a political body more than a civil one. As we saw in the 2012 re-election of President Barack Obama, bona fide organizations usually matter more for elections than internet activists, such as those which operate mainly on Twitter; we will learn more about the candidates in 2013 from their organizational power than from their campaign ad promises.

3. The Iranian middle class is not going away

As I discussed in my article published in January, Green protesters were mostly middle class, as defined by education and occupation, but that doesn’t mean they were a small elite living in Tehran villas. Given the rapid expansion in universities around Iran, a large portion of young people with a college degree come from families with working class parents. Go to many neighborhoods in Tehran, or any public park, and you will see a mixed class setting. Many of these younger individuals felt deeply alienated from the Iranian government in the wake of the 2009 election, if not before.

Yet it’s a myth that conservatives in Iran solely rely on poor people for their political base. The right-wing put on a good show while being challenged on the street by Green protesters, but within a year, the coalition that had backed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in tatters. Iran’s current president is now widely regarded as the Alfred E. Neuman of the Islamic Republic. As a result, there may be even more candidates running in 2013 than in 2009, unless the various wings of the conservative spectrum make nice with each other. That’s not likely to happen, however, and as the election draws nearer, some of these candidates will appeal to the middle class, especially after a disastrous economic year that saw so many families being hit by inflation and currency troubles. Even without a reformist candidate, Iran’s struggling economy sets the stage for more surprises.

Related to Iran’s economic dilemma is the gorilla in the Supreme Leader’s office: sanctions by the US and EU. More candidates could mean a less predicable election, but a hardline US stance on Iran could also lead to a situation where no single candidate would dare step out of line lest he be accused of being “soft on America.”

But during a trip to Iran late last year, it was easy to pick up any newspaper and read about conservatives ripping into each other. As I wrote in The London Review of Books, this means “alliances and enmities are being rearranged yet again.”

The experts will likely tell you that Iran’s 2013 election will be a dog and pony show. While another huge social movement is unlikely, we may all end up, yet again, surprised by Iranian politics.

A version of this article was published on Lobe Log in January.

Photo Credit: Nima Fatemi

Kevan Harris

Kevan Harris is a sociologist at Princeton University's Near Eastern Studies Department. He received his doctorate from Johns Hopkins University and was a 2010-11 US Institute of Peace Junior Scholar. He has spoken on contemporary Iranian politics and society at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, the Brookings Institution and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.